They are NHL Road Warriors. How else to explain the Rangers' league best 15 wins away from MSG? After dropping an uncharacteristic two in a row in Florida last week, John Tortorella's resilient bunch again rose up- stringing together back-to-back impressive wins over the Stars and Blues over the weekend.
That they had to fight back twice against one of the West's best teams before prevailing in a shootout and then follow it up by bouncing back from a goal down to edge St. Louis 2-1 is indicative of what this team is all about. No matter who goes down, these Rangers fight and scrap their way to two points. They've already been without emotional leader Ryan Callahan for 10 games. How have they responded since a dissapointing Florida trip? By winning three straight including an equally satisfying overtime win over ninth Carolina. Three consecutive one-goal triumphs puts them at 6-2-2 since Cally went down at Pittsburgh in the first of ironically a character building 4-1 win that saw the club stun the Pens with four unanswered in the final nine-plus minutes.
It's that kind of never say die attitude that has these Blueshirts 25-15-3 with 53 points in sixth knocking on the door behind fourth Pittsburgh and fifth Washington. The 15-7-1 road record demonstrates how closely knit this gritty bunch is. Along with an impressive 10-1 mark in the second of back-to-backs, Tortorella's crew doesn't know the word quit. Are they perfect? Far from it. Aside from struggling finisher Marian Gaborik, the Rangers lack the big play ability of the Crosby Pens, Ovechkin Caps, star studded Flyers and Stamkos/St. Louis Lightning. They get it done as a group through hard work by outhustling opponents and winning all sorts of battles.
If one player epitomizes the yeoman effort, it's Brandon Dubinsky. The fourth-year Alaskan has flourished since being shifted to left wing. Dubi as fans and teammates call him is on pace for a career season with his contract up after the season. While it'd be easy for us to concern ourselves with that, that's for Dubinsky and management to handle. This season, the 24 year-old forward paces the Rangers with 16 goals and 36 points. But it's more than just the numbers with one of the hardest working players who is a PK fixture hounding opponents and always is willing to sacrifice for the good of the team. Lately, it's resulted in defining moments like the one where he came off the wall beating two Blues to set up Sean Avery's winner. Since his running mate Callahan went down, Dubinsky has stepped up contributing nine points (2-7-9) during the latest Ranger run helping put some distance between them and the Hurricanes. Dubinsky is still a little streaky but his constant puck pressure makes him so valuable. It's why he'll definitely get extended by Glen Sather, who'll have to recognize the improvement.
While Dubinsky has led, he's gotten plenty of help from Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, who have fulfilled their new contracts by becoming the shutdown pair the Rangers envisioned. Not only are they limiting scoring chances against but also assuming more responsibility by performing admirably on the power play and also jumping up more when it's needed. Perhaps the best example this season came from Staal, who scored a huge shorthanded goal tying the Pens before Dubinsky set up Callahan in overtime for a huge win. That kind of leadership after how Pittsburgh stunned a frustrated Henrik Lundqvist with two straight cannot be underestimated. It's a play Staal doesn't make last year. Whether it's throwing the body, getting in the path of a big shot or warding off checkers for a huge clear, each has grown in stature.
It's that kind of committment that has this team looking like a dangerous out come Spring. However, they still have plenty of work left with two games against eighth Montreal this week sandwiched around the sizzling Canucks, plus a third meeting against the Flyers. It promises to be tough but one thing about the 2010-11 Rangers. They've met every challenge. Whether it's the constant checking of Brian Boyle and Brandon Prust or the equally surprising Ruslan Fedotenko, they come hard. Rookie Derek Stepan continues to grow all the time, tying the Blues off a nice feed from Mats Zuccarello, who looks like he'll stay on Broadway even when the Rangers get totally healthy.
Of course, they won't be that now that Alex Frolov is done for the season with a torn ACL/MCL suffered in St. Louis the other night. A bitter end to probably his only year in the Big Apple. Say what you will about the lack of production from the former King. But he was still trying. His forecheck had improved leaps and bounds after a stint with Boyle/Prust. From that standpoint, they could miss the enigmatic Russian who finishes with seven goals and nine assists in 43 games. Much like it's been all season, it'll be up to someone else to step up. They'll need more goals off the stick of Artem Anisimov, who when he shoots is dangerous. Just ask Dallas goalie Kari Lehtonen, who had no chance on an absolute ripper that forced extras last Friday. Arty has taken 97 shots thus far. He needs to shoot more. If he does, 20 goals is possible.
Of course, Tortorella needs more from Gaborik who couldn't even get a gimme which looked in to snap a slump. Hell. Even Sam Rosen and Joe Micheletti were convinced it was in only to have replays confirm his one-timer off Dubinsky's brilliant feed went off the cross bar before Avery followed it up. At this critical juncture, it's no longer about who he plays with. I could care less if he doesn't have the marquee center to play with. Gabby has proven he can finish with Erik Christensen. Another injured player who won't be back anytime soon. Simply put. It's time for the Big Ticket to remember who he is. There are no excuses. It looks Avery is finally getting it. Maybe he can rub off on Gabby.
Goaltending has been a strength. When you have Henrik Lundqvist, it should be. He's been more consistent lately and even is contributing offensively. It was his brilliant pass that caught the Stars changing, allowing Anisimov to wire his 10th for the equalizer. As scary as he is playing pucks which led to a goal against over the weekend, believe it or not King Henrik leads all goalies with three assists. Let's just hope he minimizes the adventures. What's even better is the way backup Martin Biron performed Saturday, making key stops in the second to give his teammates a chance. The ex-Sabre has already started 11 games and won seven posting a respectable 2.26 GAA and .920 save percentage. Exactly what Tortorella was looking for to keep Lundqvist fresh down the stretch. Just maybe it'll make a difference.
You can't forget the contributions from Mike Sauer, who's become the team's third best blueliner. Credit goes out to the Sauer Man on persevering despite injuries to finally work his way into our top four. He rarely makes mistakes and is rock solid in his end. The kind of sturdy defender we've always needed. Then there's Matt Gilroy, who has gone long stretches sitting in the press box but never complained. And now, he's being rewarded and rewarded the coach with better play by getting involved offensively while playing stronger defensively. Enough can't be said about both these two who have made a huge impact to boost our back end. Michal Rozsival probably will miss more games this week but the vet's had a better year. And there's not enough praise for Steve Eminger.
It's been an exciting season for our Blueshirts. One which they have earned.